Catholic Aid Groups Mobilizing to Help Afghanistan

Humanitarian Disaster Looms as Winter Approaches

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan, OCT. 19, 2001 ( Life at Central Asia´s ground zero is getting colder — and leaner.

«We are afraid that people really do not grasp the magnitude of the crisis unfolding inside of Afghanistan,» reported Luc Picard, a Pakistan country representative for Catholic Relief Services.

«Numbers are impossible to judge accurately, but millions are surely at risk, and hundreds of thousands are facing life threatening food needs,» he said. «It really is a race against time to reach them before the snow cuts them off for months.»

The U.S.-led military strikes at the ruling Taliban and Osama bin Laden in retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington are only part of the Afghan civilians´ problems.

The advent of the Afghan winter, the difficulty of the terrain, the prospect of a long war, and the great number of women and children in danger of suffering hunger has resulted in unprecedented mobilization by Caritas International, a confederation of Catholic aid organizations.

According to Caritas sources in Pakistan, about 2 million Afghan children are either refugees or displaced. Many are already suffering from malnutrition.

The best estimates of how many people may actually be in need come from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the U.N. World Food Program (WFP).

UNHCR, which is coordinating the humanitarian response in Pakistan and Afghanistan, has estimated that between 300,000 and 1.5 million people may require immediate emergency assistance in Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, the WFP estimates that 5 million people are in need of food. Catholic Relief Services has committed $2.35 million for emergency needs in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is preparing for two scenarios.

The first of these scenarios involves the opening of the Pakistani border, an act that would involve an immediate influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees into camps in northern Pakistan.

The member organizations of Caritas International in the Northwest Frontier Province, where many of the camps would be situated, are working to identify and rehabilitate water supplies in one of the campsites, a great need in this arid region.

Caritas is also gearing up to provide blankets and basic household supplies like cooking pots and jerrycans to 30,000 people.

In addition to assisting the needy in Pakistan, many humanitarian agencies are directing their efforts toward displaced people within Afghanistan itself. Caritas has a local Afghanistan partner for its planned relief efforts within that country.

Specifically, Catholic Relief Services is seeking initially to provide 200,000 displaced Afghan people with food and items such as blankets.

In addition to the current acute situation, the people of Afghanistan are also suffering from a 20-year civil war, and from earthquakes and droughts.

Catholic Relief Services has been assisting the people of Afghanistan for the last 10 years and in 1997 became the lead agency of the newly formed Caritas Organizations for Aid to Afghanistan.

This co-operative effort on the part of CRS, Caritas Germany, Caritas France, and Caritas Denmark focused on humanitarian assistance, health, education and infrastructure rehabilitation. Most recently, Caritas Germany, through whom CRS has been providing humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people, took over the lead role.

Afghanistan´s neighbor, Pakistan, is also being challenged by multiple crises ranging from flooding, to drought, to sheltering Afghan refugees fleeing drought, civil war and U.S. military strikes.

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